A preview of sorts Thursday afternoon, for a new, multi-year attraction in Angola. The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society (FWRHS) took community leaders, donors, and members of the media on the organization’s first Indiana Rail Experience. It’s a new partnership between the FWRHS and the Indiana Northeastern Railroad Company. “The stars really did align for us, to be able to offer something really exciting and new — right in our backyard,” vice president Kelly Lynch told ABC21. “Having an attraction like this is like having lightning in a bottle, and now we have a place to put the bottle.”
It’s an exciting development, for the non-profit, which celebrates its 50th year in 2022. Now, more than ever, passenger train trips and theme events will be offered, taking people from Indiana to Ohio and Michigan over 100-miles of railroad line. “Everything we do here is kind of a best kept secret,” Lynch added, “and the more people we can share this secret with, the better.” He’s of course talking about the iconic machinery that powers each trip: Nickel Plate Road no. 765. The 1940s-era steam locomotive was removed as a stagnant display in Lawton Park, and restored to working condition in 1979.
Wayne York has been there since it all began. “We’ve just far exceeded any hopes we ever had of what we could do with this locomotive,” he shared. “And it’s also the bigger picture of trying to preserve railroad history from the golden age, which was about 1925 to about 1960. And all the equipment on this train, dates from that period, as well as the locomotive — that’s the railroad heritage we’re trying to preserve and introduce to new generations.”
Cars range from practical to luxury and comfort. Some have dozens of seats, others small cabins which include controlled lights, a fan, and bathroom. The higher class cars even include queen sized beds with dressers. And in between, several options tables and kitchens for dining and snacks. An open car will soon be renovated to include a bar, while guests look out over the passing landscape.
Though coal and steam power the trip, hundreds of volunteers fuel the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s trips. Stewards, conductors, and engineers enthusiastic each and every time they ride the no. 765. “It takes a village to run a steam train — so every time we have a weekend work session, or we’re getting ready to take the train on the road, people come from everywhere,” Lynch said. “And it’s not just from Allen County or DeKalb county or Northeast Indiana. We have people from Michigan, from Ohio, from West Virginia, and Illinois.”
Steuben County Economic Development Director Isaac Lee, who boarded the trip with his children, sees big potential with the Indiana Rail Experience coming to Angola. “The work that I do, and that we do collectively to build our community, is about keeping our kids here with us, having them grow with us, be successful with us. It’s about generational growth,” he explained. “It’s not just looking at experiences that help my wife and I — it’s about the kids too.”
“This type of attraction has a magnet affect of bringing populations that either live here, or would like to tour through our area,” Lee continued. “You don’t get many experiences to work with trains. So, that experience coming north from Fort Wayne to Angola? We’re pretty excited about it.”
Much of the public, may already know and be following upcoming trips. The Indiana Ice Cream Train, and the Wine, Whiskey, & Spirits Train trips planned for July 8-9 are already sold out. And tickets are filling up so fast for other events, we’re told organizers are working on scheduling more events later this summer. You can look out for available opportunities for the Indiana Rail Experience here. “Being able to share that feeling of awe and wonder and joy with thousands of people every year?” Lynch told us. “That’s what’s really addicting.”
As we celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2022, let’s look back at our very first steam excursion 42 years ago this month!
This silent, 8mm footage was recently acquired and scanned in high definition, though the photographer is unknown. It features the 765 operating west on the Norfolk & Western out of Fort Wayne through Huntington, Wabash, Peru, and Logansport, with additional footage at Monticello and Reynolds, Indiana, and Washington Hill.
After its initial restoration in 1979, Nickel Plate Road steam locomotive no. 765 ran from Fort Wayne to Bellevue, Ohio where it spent the winter. The following spring, test runs for the locomotive were scheduled on the Toledo Peoria & Western, where the locomotive operated in freight and pusher service for several days. The locomotive’s first fan trip was held on May 10th and May 11th between East Peoria and Keokuk, Iowa, and East Peoria to Effner, Illinois. Below is an excerpt from 765: A 21st Century Survivor on the 765’s first test runs:
Early in our steam career, we were invited by Bob Macmillan, then the President of the Toledo, Peoria and Western Railroad, to bring the 765 to Peoria for some test running and a few excursion trips. We figured the 765 was ready for some hard work. After all, we had run the locomotive from Fort Wayne to Sandusky and back hadn’t we? If we only knew how much we had to learn!
We spent a few days switching in the East Peoria Yard and then we were called to work the pusher job on Washington Hill. All things considered, the first few days went pretty well. At last, we were called to pull a TP&W freight train to Effner, Illinois. The railroad romanticists called it the “Night Train to Effner.” In retrospect, it turned out to be the “Nightmare to Effner.”
In performing the repairs on the 765, all the superheater units were removed and each was subjected to a hydrostatic pressure test. Many of those units had a lot of leaks and were repaired. But there isn’t anything like dragging a few thousand tons of freight to find out what is fixed and what isn’t.
After hammering east toward Effner for 50 or 60 miles, the locomotive was starting to steam poorly. The over-the-road vibration combined with the steam velocity through the superheaters caused the units to begin to leak. Leaking superheated steam expands so rapidly that the vacuum is destroyed in the smokebox and without vacuum, you lose the draft. No draft means no fire. The poor draft in concert with the southern Illinois dirt that someone identified as coal caused the coal consumption to rise dramatically.
The long and short of it is we ran out of coal just short of Watseka, Illinois. Fortunately, the “Tip-up” (the nickname the TP&W guys used) was in the midst of a tie replacement program. We temporarily made the 765 a wood burner for the next 6 miles. “Don’t burn any new ones!” Mr. Macmillan yelled from the crew car.
By this time the railroad president probably had begun to wonder why he ever invited us there in the first place. We struggled into Watseka and laid up for the night, with the coal space swept clean and the water level in the tender at about 6 inches.
Our crew, which numbered over ten, woke up an unhappy motel owner in the wee hours of the morning. We all registered in the last room in town. A dozen dirty and weary guys crowded into one room! It must have looked like a college fraternity trying to jam the whole house into a VW.
Coaling took place the next morning and we finally reached Effner, the end of TP&W trackage, later that morning. To his everlasting credit, Mr. Mac didn’t push us off his railroad and leave us at Effner forever.
If we had any success at all in our first 14 years of steam operation, much credit must be given to Mr. Robert Macmillan, the gentleman from Peoria.
As 1980 wore on, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society had time to reflect on its accomplishments. At the time, founders Glenn Brendel and Wayne York wrote, “Admiring the 765 out on the road, or admiring her at rest, the 1975-1979 restoration may seem quite remote. But until the fire-up of September 1978, the FWRHS was faced with a seemingly impossible task. There was no assurance the 765 restorations would ever be completed. There were many dark, dark days when even after a full day’s work, no measurable progress could be detected…This was the largest steam locomotive ever restored outdoors without conventional facilities. A dubious claim of distinction. Without the help of friends and good neighbors, the project may have never been completed…the restoration of Locomotive 765 is as much a tribute to the perseverance of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historial Society as it is to the glory days of railroading.”
Thanks to Greg Scholl for the thumbnail photo.
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In May of 1958, the steam locomotive had less than 60 days of life left on the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad.
In Conneaut, Ohio, the slow march toward obsolescence wore on inside the railroad’s shop near South Jackon Street. Sometime that month, it would complete the last overhaul of one of its storied Berkshire-type steam locomotives – an engine numbered 759.
Despite the railroad’s re-investment in the locomotive, its “superpowered” ability to hustle and bustle commerce across the Midwest, and the belief that steam could still play a limited role were it not for an economic recession, the engine would never turn another wheel for the what was more commonly known as the Nickel Plate Road.
A few weeks later in June, the outdated technology that had steadily guided the company for over 70 years would cease. The flame would extinguish entirely that winter when a stored steam engine numbered 765 was fired up for a stranded passenger train in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and as a few yard engines loped around Bellevue, Ohio to fill-in amidst their diesel-powered replacements.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, a variety of retired engines had been plucked from the scrap line, destined to become city monuments or encounter other fates – Nickel Plate Mikado-types went to Hammond and Indianapolis, Indiana, and Bloomington, Illinois; one Hudson went to St. Louis and two others to a private owner; but the Berkshires, still listed as “stored serviceable” on the company roster, languished around the system. In 1962, F. Nelson Blount purchased the 759 for his collection at Steamtown USA, a swelling museum collection of itinerant steam locomotives located in New Hampshire, and later relocated to Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Not long after, a collection of steam history enthusiasts which comprised the High Iron Company had sprung up operating steam excursions in the East. “HiCo” was determined to celebrate the centennial of the Transcontinental Railroad a short time away in 1969. They knew that pulling a massive, barnstorming, cross-country steam excursion required a superpower. They needed the 759.
The engine was leased from Steamtown, only to find itself relocated back to Conneaut. There, the Nickel Plate’s successor Norfolk & Western permitted the engine back to where it had originally left in like-new condition only ten years earlier. In just a few months, the engine was tuned up and repaired by a menagerie of teenagers, investors, former Nickel Platers, and dozens of others. By August of 1968, the 759 was alive again.
For several years, the 759 romped around the general railroad system, racking up thousands of miles between New Jersey, Kansas City, Roanoke, Horsehoe Curve, Cumberland, Jim Thorpe, and beyond, operating specials, charters, and excursions with paying passengers and diehards in attendance by the thousands.
With its signature gravelly whistle spreading its melody over different time zones, it pulled most of the eastern leg of the 1969 Golden Spike Centennial Limited and the last Norfolk & Western passenger train before Amtrak took over in 1971.
The 759 tapped into a cultural zeitgeist in more ways than one. Amid the Golden Spike trips and elsewhere, the engine traveled through a handful of towns in Indiana and Ohio, where it proved to an unorganized group of young railroad fans that a mainline, superpowered steam locomotive like no. 759 could actually be restored. It could actually be done.
In Fort Wayne that group would soon convalesce around a monument in a city park that bore a special resemblance to the 759.
Shortly after the 759 had been selected for Steamtown, five other Berkshires found their own paths to preservation. As the 759 arrived in New Hampshire, the Nickel Plate Road readied sister engine no. 765 for display in Fort Wayne’s Lawton Park in 1964. The 765 had been the last Berkshire under steam for the railroad, whereas the 759 had been the last one overhauled. The two engines had unwittingly become 400-ton bookends in the library of steam locomotive history.
Enchanted by the smell of coal smoke and the success of The High Iron Company, the merry band of advocates formed the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society in 1972 with the intention to preserve, restore and operate the 765. Before the 765 would ever turn a wheel under its own power again in 1979, the 759’s brief career was over, but the engine’s inspiration and members of its very crew would carry the Fort Wayne organization toward realizing their dream. To help, the Society acquired a 16mm print of Steam Right On, a lovingly crafted, 18-minute documentary showcasing the 759’s own revival.
Filmed by Michael Autorino, narrated by Alan Frank, and produced by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the film’s soundtrack interchanges the imagined “voice” of the 759 with commentary from its crew members, all set against a plucky, folksy guitar track, professional, vivid cinematography, with excited, montage-style editing. It feels a little dated, but in a way that is charmingly so. “Come to think of it, who’s more suited to whistle-stop campaigning than I am?” asks the narrator.
While we see plenty of the 759’s crew at work, the filmmaker makes a distinctive creative choice to never use traditionally shot interviews or “talking heads.” We hear only the “voice” of the 759 and the evocative remarks from her laborers. The variety of footage is also striking – with glimpses of Ridgeley, West Virginia coming out to welcome the 759 on the Western Maryland Railroad and coverage of the 759’s long climb up the Middle Division of Penn Central over Horseshoe Curve.
A custom cut of the film was created by the Society for use in fundraising for the 765. At the tail end of the reel, footage of the 765’s crew is spliced in, showing them hard at work wrangling the 765 back to life in a section entitled “PROJECT 765.”
The footage plays out silently, meant to be narrated in-person by its presenters, wherever the 765’s crew was giving a much-needed pitch. While the High Iron Company had been funded by investors like Ross Rowland, the Fort Wayne group had settled their efforts in a modest field, without a shop facility like Calumet, and with only a grassroots donation campaign underway.
By 1979, the 765 was successfully restored, but the 759’s time had passed. When the Society shared Steam Right On, no one knew that the passing of the torch had already occurred. Suffering several mechanical issues, it was returned to Bellows Falls where it rested until it was relocated into the reorganized Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1984. For twenty years, the 765 would nonetheless follow its example, operating for Norfolk & Western’s successor Norfolk Southern, crossing the Mississippi River, gliding through the New River Gorge, climbing Horsehoe Curve, and marching into downtown Chicago in passenger excursion and public exhibition service, delighting millions of people from around the world.
In 2015, the 765 was welcomed to Steamtown for a series of special events – and for the first time since the late 1950s, two Nickel Plate Berkshires sat side-by-side in a roundhouse together. In steam preservation, where so many pieces of equipment were once scattered to the wind, the idea that two large mainline locomotives of the same class, same railroad, same type, same-nearly-everything, would co-exist together is a rarity. The bookends had finally met.
The 759’s role as a teaching tool has extended far beyond Conneaut or Steamtown.
It taught a new generation that it could be done.
But why’d they do it?
We should let 759 answer:
“Why do they do it? What causes their admiration? Where did their love begin? Where does it come from, this fascination that men have for me? My kind? The enthusiasm and admiration transcend time. Whether in a big city or a small town, the people turn out. Some, perhaps, with nostalgic memories of their youth. Still others with a youthful curiosity to see me first hand, for the first time…Well, let’s just say that this country and we grew hand in hand. We made an impression on each other. And each was better for it.”
The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society (FWRHS) is pleased to announce that an anonymous donor has stepped forward to offer a matching grant for Project 358, the Society’s restoration of a vintage diesel locomotive from the Nickel Plate Road. Donations up to $5,358 will be matched dollar for dollar through December 31st.
October 28th is “Engine No. 765 Day” in Fort Wayne and Allen County. Why, you ask? Climb aboard and we’ll show you.
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